Interview: Shamfa Cudjoe

Does the current tourism incentive framework encourage infrastructure development?

SHAMFA CUDJOE: Investment in the Trinidad and Tobago tourism sector is regulated by the Tourism Development Act of 2000. The current incentives allow for import tax breaks when building and stocking a hotel or major tourist attraction, as well as tax and Customs duties exemptions on vehicles used for tourism purposes. Some elements of the act, however, no longer constitute an adequate regulatory framework for developing the industry, particularly with regard to the definition and rating of our hospitality facilities.

We are evaluating the possibility of changing the Tourism Development Company (TDC) from a government agency that promotes and develops tourism into a regulatory authority with the power to conduct inspections and impose sanctions on facilities that do not comply with certain standards.

How is the government planning to enhance the marketing of T&T’s tourism offering abroad?

CUDJOE: We are conducting an audit of our overseas representatives, and we intend to hold them to greater account in the future. If Carnival arrivals vary in a certain year, for instance, each of our representatives should be able to provide a data-based assessment of what happened in their respective markets. For too long we have tried to imitate what other regional competitors are doing while lacking the research to assess our own product and decision making. Moreover, while the TDC has consistently promoted T&T at international conferences, we should be more targeted in our approach. The TDC will increasingly educate travel agents abroad and invite them to tour T&T as our guests. For the most part, we depend heavily on the US and European markets, but there are some new and emerging markets we ought to pay attention to, such as Martinique or Guadalupe, as well as China’s growing pool of upper-income travellers.

What can be done to further unlock the potential of Carnival as a tourist attraction? CUDJOE: In 2016 Carnival experienced a 6.9% year-on-year decline in tourist arrivals. Aside from the fact that Carnival doesn’t always coincide with spring holiday periods in our main markets, there are some structural issues we need to examine. Airlines have reported positive load factors of 97% and 98%, but room stock is a major bottleneck during the period. Prospective visitors simply do not have available rooms to choose from in the weeks leading up to Carnival. Improving the Airbnb offering is a short-term solution we are looking at. In addition, we are working with Carnival stakeholders to bring the festival up to international standards, and the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and the Arts has initiated a preparatory study to improve the organisation, quality and exposure of the 2017 Carnival.

In what ways is the government looking to improve the quality of the domestic tourism offering?

CUDJOE: Marketing the product is only one side of the coin; equally important is its quality and integration. T&T is the cultural capital of the English-speaking Caribbean; it is a melting pot of people with diverse cuisines, languages, religions and customs. We need to make sure this is reflected in a more integrated tourism package. Technology can serve us well in this respect, and we are designing a smartphone app and TV channel to provide tourists with a full agenda of activities upon arrival. Even a business traveller in July should be able to get a glimpse of what Carnival will look like six months later. To this end, we are working on a project called Carnival Alive 365. This involves engaging steel bands, soca artists, calypsonians and mas costume manufacturers to run shows throughout the year, and inviting hotels to host culture nights offering a full local experience. We are also looking for a suitable location to establish a Carnival museum.